By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily
I could hear the livestock guardian dogs raising hell that morning a little over a year ago when I stepped outside to begin to check how all the animals had faired during the night. The sheep had fled their bedground, and most of the dogs were half-crazed in their aggression directed toward the rocky ridge that rises just behind our house, so I knew that wolves had paid a nocturnal visit. I spotted six-month old Boo flat on her side in the sand along the ditch, just below the rocks. I called out to her, but she didn’t lift her head. I hurried over to her wounded, bleeding body, but Boo remained unmoving except for her naturally stubbed tail, which she wagged gently when I said her name. In the wee hours that summer morning, the wolves had caught young Boo and taken her down.
I screamed for help, and within minutes Cass had scooped the limp dog up into his arms, cradling her in the back of the truck as we hurried toward the house. As we’ve done before, I called the vet clinic an hour away so they would be ready for our arrival.
We had high hopes for Boo’s survival. As the vet shaved her bloody mane, he noted that much of the blood in that section of her body wasn’t Boo’s: she had inflicted some bites on her attacker during the battle. But she had deep bite wounds to her neck, the top of both hips, and nasty scrapes on her underside. She was hypothermic, going into shock, so the team administered antibiotics and painkillers before placing her in warming blankets. They would clean out her wounds once she rested a little, giving the painkillers time to work.
None of us believed her wounds were life-threatening that morning. But after I left, and the vet went to clean the wounds, he found just how severely the wolf had injured our brave Boo. It grabbed her neck in its powerful jaws, clamped down and shook her. The other dogs must have intervened, or else Boo wouldn’t have survived.
It would be a long 24 hours of waiting to learn if the damage was simply too much for Boo’s young body to bear. But while the vet clinic crew worked on her, Boo continued to wag that silly tail. When I went to see her late that afternoon, she woke up long enough to wag while I kissed her velvety nose. Sweet, sweet girl.
I went up the mountain that evening and sobbed, as only a mountain could cope with such sorrow. Later that night as I slept fitfully, the wolves returned to our pastures, but the remaining guardian dogs kept them from inflicting further damage. The wolves moved on, into the neighbor’s cattle herd, killing two calves.
Armed with wound-care instructions and medications from the vet, we brought Boo home the next afternoon, as her best chance for recovery would be in familiar surroundings. Jim and Cass took turns carrying Boo outside so she could relieve herself, and would then carry her back to the security of the house, gently placing her in a favored spot on the couch. We brought lambs into the yard so she could spend a few minutes each day interacting with those she loves best. The next week was a blur, filled with rough days for the young dog, and for us as the wolves made repeated night-time visits, trying to get into the sheep flock. We killed a few wolves but others remain, and I suppose there will always be wolves here.
Boo’s body eventually recovered from the attack, and she tried venturing back out with the range sheep, but she no longer had the heart for it. The attack had changed her, and she was afraid.
Boo now spends her nights locked in the safety of a kennel, and ventures out during the day to the relative safety of the ranch yard where there are always a few sheep and guardian dog retirees. She plays joyfully in the ditch in the summer, and naps on the hay feedline set out for the sheep in the winter. She hunts gophers in the sagebrush and seems content enough with her new life, but I wonder if she’d be better off as a couch dog in a house full of children. Every now and then, we’ll see a flash of her old spunk, and it saddens me that such a young dog has chosen to retire from a life she loved. The wolves changed her.
Boo wasn’t the only dog injured by the wolves last year in our area of the southern Wind River Mountains. Two dogs were killed at a nearby shepherd’s camp, another had to be put down, and huge Bear-Bear fought nearly to death but survived. Two other dogs, our top two guardians, simply disappeared. But the pain is still too fresh for me to tell their story.
Livestock guardian dogs are noble beasts: gentle to weaker animals, yet fierce in their defense of others. Through the repeated wolf chaos of last year, the guardian dogs kept our sheep and cattle safe, even as our neighbors suffered losses. But it wasn’t easy, and it came at a cost.
There are increasing calls for ranchers to use non-lethal means such as livestock guardians to keep livestock safe from large carnivores, as if guardian animals are merely tools to be used. While our guardians are an excellent deterrent to predators, the coexistent relationship with wolves is not non-lethal. Sometimes protection comes at great cost: the death of a beloved working dog, the loss of a working partner.
Some may love the thought of wolves, but we loved Beyza, and Mos, and other dogs we’ve lost to the crushing jaws of wolves.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.